How not to market to people in their 40s

Online Marketing

Liz, December 9, 2016

Or – if another marketer categorises me as “middle aged” I may just strangle them with an elasticated trouser waistband…

About a year ago – and at a point in my life where it has to be said, I wasn’t feeling particularly great – I got a letter from my GP.

It was an invitation for my “Middle Aged Health Check”. Accompanying the letter was a gatefold leaflet that started off by saying: “This is the time of your life where things can start to go wrong…”

For anyone reading this from outside the UK, you need to understand that this isn’t a country where we have an annual health check or anything. In fact, even if you are ill, it can take so long to get an appointment with a general practitioner that you’re better by the time it comes around. It’s perfectly possible to go for years without having any contact with a doctor.

So to get an open invitation to go to a surgery is quite an event.

However, I was so aghast that I was already considered “middle aged” and at the time of life “where things start to go wrong” that I bullishly ignored the invitation. Harrumph! I thought. You can stick your Middle Aged Health Check up your bum.

I seethed inside for a little moment – and carried on. But then it was like a switch had been flicked. And actually, in a sense, it had. Because in databases throughout the land, my details shifted out of one age range and into the next.

So while my younger colleagues get junk email and Facebook ads for pretty things to wear and cool places to go to, I get information about stuff my 70-year-old mum would consider “a bit too old” for her right now.

These are things that marketers now think I’m interested in:

  • Cruises (WT???)
  • Incontinence products and surgery (how about really bugger off now?)
  • Every type of cosmetic surgery you can think of
  • Products for mature skin/mature hair/mature women
  • Fashion consultancy for “older women” who “might have lost their way”

I haven’t had one for a stairlift yet, but I’m sure it’s on its way.

Specsavers ad for over 40s

The latest one was for varifocal lenses. Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph!!! Specsavers already knows that I’m blind as a bat. But now I’ve moved from the vibrant, sparkly (albeit blurry without lenses) section of their CRM into the beige wilderness that is “45 and above”.

And do you know what? I’m so hacked off with it that I might just start getting my lenses and glasses elsewhere.

After much harrumphing about the Specsavers email, I started googling “marketing to over 45s” – and found that even specialist agencies seem to have No Idea Whatsoever.

Take this quote from an agency that specializes in marketing to over 50s: “Think about things like brochure design… is it easy to read? Or if you have a retail outlet, do you offer parking near to the entrance?”

Jesus Christ on a bicycle. No wonder the cash-strapped NHS thinks we all need to be checked out asap.

Reality check

At the age of 46 – and I don’t think I’m unusual in this – I’m not doing anything or participating in anything radically different to what I did when I was 26. I still like the things I liked then. The clothes I wear aren’t massively different (though they probably cost a bit more), I go walking, do a bit of climbing and kayaking and I take a ski holiday most years. I travel, I enjoy nice food and wine. Maybe I drink less and don’t stay out until the early hours – but then, even students don’t seem to go to clubs any more.

Despite the miles on the clock, wear and tear seems to have been minimal.

So why don’t the people who want me to buy their stuff know this? Why do they seem intent on pushing me into a “middle aged” mould?

Where do these attitudes come from?

A lack of empathy

Well I guess if you’re a newly graduated marketing exec, being 40 may seem a long way off – like a distant planet with mysterious inhabitants.

But rather than thinking, “Hmm, so what about the 40+-year-olds I know, what are they doing?” Or even better, doing a bit of research, they fall back on outdated stereotypes.

On one hand, this approach makes me think, “Ha ha, just you wait.” On the other, the disconnect with reality amazes me. Because surely even the hippest young marketer knows that images like this show women in their 60s, rather than their 40s?

And surely they have mums and dads who aren’t dribbling and incoherent?

Prioritising the technical over the human

We have at our disposal some of the most sophisticated tools that have ever existed – that allow us to segment and understand very specific audiences.

And yet, very often, the emphasis in digital marketing is on the technical rather than the human. So marketers stock up on courses and awareness sessions on how to operate platforms and communicate via different channels. The thought seems to be that online activity always paints an accurate picture of human behaviour. Yet surely, you need to understand human behaviour to be able to interpret online activity? (Right now, for example, the fact that I opened and read the Specsavers email is probably being chalked up as a “success” – when in reality, it bombed for me.)

But I think that to get the most from digital marketing tools, you need to get from behind a screen and actually talk to people and watch them using your spaces.

Is it even worth knowing someone’s age any more?

I think so – but not because we have particularly different needs. It’s more because of this: we budding wrinklies are the ones with the disposable income. And we’re in the majority.

The average age of people in the UK was 40 in 2014. Which means that more than half of the population is over the age of 40.

And almost 15% of the entire population is in its 40s.

If you want to annoy and alienate this significant chunk of consumers, it’s easy. Just keep telling them they’re over the hill and falling apart.

But if you want to build great relationships of trust and respect, then you need to ditch stereotyped segmentation. Age, addresses, incomes, gender – they’re all kind of meaningless out of context.

And that context needs to come from conversations, interactions, research and observation.

Life is far more converged and merged than it’s ever been. Just because you shop at Lidl doesn’t mean you don’t drive a BMW. And just because you’re 70 doesn’t mean you don’t run three times a week.

I know 40+ year-old first-time parents. I know 80 year-olds who are active in the business community. I know 40 year-olds who are grandparents. I know women who are the main breadwinner in their family and men who stay home and look after kids. We all do.

In short, there are no easy pigeon holes – and if your marketing strategy thinks there are, it’s fundamentally flawed.

If you need help understanding your audiences, give us a call. And if you want to create successful messaging for all your audience segments, we’re here too.


Funeral plans

Forget the stairlift – as a cheery start to 2017, the ad for my own funeral has now arrived. Because I’d better start saving for when I die – AGED 66. FFS.

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